Paratexts … mediate between the actual text and what lies outside it (its audience , its other texts, institutions); they also mark the threshold – i.e. the point of entrance and exit – and forge a ‘communicative contract’ between spectator and text as described by semio-pragmatics. T. Elsaesser and M. Hagener, Film Theory: An Introduction Through the Senses, 42.
When I began watching Homeland, I had heard about it on the Net. Living in Italy, where new TV shows find their way on the tube only after winning large acclaim (meaning actual awards) elsewhere, I had only online reviews, forums and blogs to wet my appetite for it. Being also a very demanding kind of spectator, I looked for the opinion of “experts” and fellow “fans” to make sure that at least Homeland was worth the effort of actually, you know, getting hold of it. I turned, for example, to Metacritic and there I convinced myself that I had to watch it.
The show was in its second or third instalment and already I knew a lot about it – the ambiguity, the deceiving, the suspecting, the double playing, the espionage and erotic/sentimental subplots. I also knew of the excellence of its cast, of Damian Lewis’ incredibly restrained-yet-powerful acting and of Claire Danes’ bodily expressivity. And then of course I knew, and was pre-emptively hooked, by its treatment of post-9/11 concerns – the obsession with surveillance, the mediation and mediatisation of control, the underlying distrust, anxiety and paranoia of what was once called “culture of fear” seeping well past George W. Bush’s years to contaminate Barak Obama’s new beginnings of “hope” and optimism.
All this I gathered, like I said, from reviews, fan forums and blogs of TV experts and aficionados. Like the paratextual platforms they are, these texts helped me to access and master a densely-packed storyworld, collecting numerous resources, mostly in the form of personal opinions, that enhanced my expectations of what would soon become one of my favourite shows *ever.* Jonathan Gray, Jason Jacobs, Max Dawson and Lisa Kernan have published many influential studies on this subject, turning to aesthetic and historical approaches to argue for an expanded notion of the televisual and cinematic text. Insisting on the motif of the boundary, that is, on the idea that the entertainment industry produces movies and TV shows as discrete entities, enjoyable precisely because of the unique (even when it is serialised) way they mix genre, cast and plot, the authors contend that paratexts police the thresholds of interpretation and cultural appropriation of said works. In this respect, they contribute to isolate and alienate movies and shows from critiques of standardization, banality, and cultural impoverishment. Paratexts institute and sustain industrial strategies of accumulation by indexing a preferred set of meanings and standards of value relating to the productions. The “communicative contract” that Thomas Elsaesser and Malte Hagener mention in the opening quote is established through a semio-pragmatics of guided interpretation, preemptive codification, thematic inspection and focused reasoning that associates the pleasures of watching to a cognitive appropriation of the contents of entertainment. This is true, of course, also for the movies and shows proper, as an innumerable numbers of publications on “complex” storytelling attest.
This is to say that when I finally watched Homeland’s pilot I was already familiar with it. I had been educated. What I was not prepared for, however, was its opening credits’ sequence, that you can watch here: vimeo.com/37322770 [Wordpress refuses to embed it, apologies!].
Is there a way to describe it? In preparation of this post I took careful note of what goes on in its 88 seconds. I listed its high number of shots (some of them recurring in theme, look and style), editing, postproduction intervention on colour and texture, diegetic sound and accompanying soundtrack. Had I had more time, I would have put up a diagram of all the layers that make it up. Yes, because what make the sequence noteworthy are its density and the nearly-claustrophobic, certainly displacing/disturbing atmosphere that it engineers by jamming together heterogeneous elements. I counted about 70 shots. 80% of them focus on the characters of Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) and Nicholas Brody (Damien Lewis), the remaining reproduce actual footage of a performance by Louis Armstrong; a newscast in Arabic; a scene of Muslim women wearing burqas, Presidents Ronald Regan, George Bush, Bill Clinton and Barak Obama, as well as Colin Powell, delivering televised speeches (that we hear only in ephemeral/decontextualized fragments) about acts of terror (Lockerbie, the first attacks to the World Trade Center, the second war in Iraq); and two scenes shot from inside a flying helicopter and from ground level.
The shots follow one another by way of cuts and fades. Sometimes, in the interval of fading, a third image is interspersed and overimposed that, before dissolving, produces an almost holographic effect. On these occasions, not only do the subjects of the shots lose their prominence by being displaced by something ‘other,’ the spectatorial mastery of the object of vision is bracketed by an overabundance of sensorial stimulation (something that is also obtained acoustically with the insistent superimposition of diegetic sound on a piercing jazz soundtrack). This affective intrusion also materialises as hypersaturation and chromatic aberration. Although the shots are in black and white, the use of colour in some of them, as well as in a few dissolves, is heavy. This effect is seemingly obtained by increasing the amount of cyan and/or magenta used in the black and white conversion of the images, or by overlaying a chromatic texture on them. Occasionally, a grain effect is added, as in some close-ups of Carrie’s face (in one case seen wearing headphones) and eyelid. Furthermore, and on the editing again, the sequence is realized, overall, to provoke an on-going impression of discontinuity. Not only is it almost impossible to assign consistency and coherence to the sequence of images, within those which appear as narrative fragments (because of the internal recurrence of subject and motif), some shots literally jump/shake before our eyes, drawing attention to their precarious status as objects of knowledge. This is, however, not the result of shooting with a hand-held device, although that too happens in the scene inside the helicopter. It is, rather, a performative gesture aimed at maximizing the effects of an openly cryptic spectacle. There is no consistent narrative here. Temporal and spatial coordinates evolve anarchically, going back and forth among locales and epochs (though the Presidents’ speeches are ordered diachronically) to consciously prevent audiences from analysing what they are watching.
The few comments I have encountered on the web about Homeland’s title sequence, which I have only just begun to sketch (though I’m hoping to further examine in a future essay), mostly refer to it as unnerving, the few positive ones admitting that it is “moving.” I am fascinated by these responses. The sequence does, indeed, escape definite judgement. It seems to me that it was not made to be hacked, decoded and decrypted, so much as to be absorbed, talked-back, visited again and again. As a paratext, this is a very peculiar one. How does it police the boundaries of interpretation, and how does it contribute to the accumulation of spectatorial knowledge that Matt Hills attributes to paratextual framing? I do not want to crack the code of the spectacle, so much as to enjoy it, repeatedly, on a weekly basis, for 12 weeks at least. But as a way to end this post, I would suggest that perhaps the performative force of this sequence is in the openness with which it acknowledges its own ambiguity, where sensorial stimulation and the short-circuiting of interpretive work feed the extratextual dynamics of cognitive appropriation and focused reasoning that has secured the farming of avid audiences for the past hundred of years.